Sex abuse doesn’t add up

A little girl paints “1 + 1= 2” on all her paintings. To everyone else that looks like ordinary maths but, to her, it represents the perfect number: “My mother and I, who are a family” – her mother’s boyfriend, who sexually abuses her, is pointedly excluded in this equation.

Other children create colourful puppets that are used to re-enact their real-life experiences. Many of them demonstrate experiences of rape and abuse.

Those are some examples of the therapeutic art that children create at Johannesburg’s Lefika La Phodiso, the first art-therapy centre in Africa. The centre, which has been working with children for four years, also works with guardians, teachers and parents.

“Art therapy gives children the ability to reflect without judgment. Art is a safe place for them to express themselves. It involves image making . [and] the advocacy of being able to find a voice [through] shouting out visually about issues that are not [as they should be],” centre founder Dr Hayley Berman, an art psychotherapist, said.

The centre will open an art exhibition today at the Old Fort, on Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, to create awareness of Child Protection Week, which begins next week. The exhibition’s works have been created by 80 children from violent, abusive and poor backgrounds.

One of the rules of art therapy is to never compliment someone’s art.

One of the children used a picture of an expensive car in his art. Other children around him complimented him on the nice car – but that was the car that killed his mother.

“On the one hand, I see their work, passion, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness and hope. I then see the poverty and the challenges that they have to survive and I feel that we are not making a mark,” Berman said.

In South Africa last year, 25862 cases of sexual abuse involving children were reported.

“Many of the adults around these children are absent emotionally. They are traumatised and stressed themselves [and] that often leads to abuse or neglect,” Berman said.

To these children, aged between two and 23, Lefika is their safe haven. A 12-year-old boy said: “It’s all about creative art. It shows that, whenever you put your feelings and emotions on a paper, it opens your spirit and sets your mind free.”

Another child wrote on his painting: “Lefika is where our hearts are.”

Siyabuswa Skosana is one of the volunteer facilitators at the centre’s community art counselling workshops, which are funded by the Department of Arts and Culture. Skosana said that, though the children had been silenced at home, Lefika had given them a platform from which to express themselves through art without being judged.

The centre is working with non-government organisations such as Childline, and the Teddy Bear Clinic, to set up workshops dealing with issues around child protection.

“When children are traumatised there is repression, which prevents them from expressing what they really feel.

Art therapy gives children a voice in a different form,” Teddy Bear Clinic director Shaheda Omar said.

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